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John Blanchette: Spokane Chiefs’ depth makes powerful statement in postseason

The consensus is that for drama, hockey’s playoffs have it all over basketball – the big-league, best-of-7 kind, anyway – despite all those tension-filled advanced-the-ball timeouts in the NBA’s DNA.

Here in our part of the hockey world, that’s a tougher sell, at least this year. The Western Hockey League bracket so far is a nearly all-chalk drawing, a ringer for the ho-hum first weekend of the NCAA Tournament only without the Chuxedo and Jim Nantz doing “Impractical Jokers” promos.

Other than Calgary winning a Game 7 in Lethbridge, all the WHL faves cleared Round 1. In the ongoing conference semis, every series opened 2-0 so …

Wait, what?

The Spokane Chiefs? They’re actually coming home up 2-0? Plus they now have three straight games – if the last is necessary – in the Spokane Arena because somebody booked Cirque de Soleil into Everett’s house through the weekend instead of Cirque de Power Play?

Cinderella lives. Well, if you want to stretch the concept.

The paperwork has long since been misplaced, but when the season opened in September the Chiefs were ranked sixth in the Canadian Hockey League poll that lumps together all three junior leagues.

Hey, hockey happens. Lethbridge was ranked No. 3 and didn’t finish that high in its own conference. Portland was No. 7 – and just got wiped out by the Chiefs in the first round. The season’s a long haul – long enough to allow a team to maybe meander its way to an identity.

Took the Chiefs about five months, from the looks of it. Since late February, they’ve won 16 of 19 games with a growing defensive mentality, steady goaltending and the one thing they’ve had all year.

A power play.

The Chiefs led the WHL during the regular season in scoring with a man advantage – 81 of their 267 goals, and on 29.1% of their opportunities.

“And in the playoffs,” coach Dan Lambert said, “they’ve stepped it up a little more.”

That started from the jump in the Portland series, the Chiefs netting three power-play goals in the opener. In seven games, Spokane is converting on a silly 57% of its chances – 15 percentage points better than Tri-City’s success rate a year ago, the best WHL playoff mark in pretty much forever.

OK, it’s a small sample size – almost ridiculously small. The Chiefs were on the power play just three times in the two games in Everett – converting twice. In all, they’ve cashed in on eight of their 14 playoff chances.

At least you know the unit’s not getting rusty from disuse.

Make that two units – Lambert goes at opponents with both a fastball and a curve.

“One is more of a spread against teams that want to be very aggressive,” he said, “and the other is more of a play-making unit – low plays, working in traffic, different skilled looks. We’ve been fortunate that if on one night one isn’t clicking on all cylinders, the other steps up. It’s been like that all year.”

The “skill group” – defenseman Ty Smith with forwards Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Riley Woods, Luc Smith and Eli Zummack – came up with winning goals (by Anderson-Dolan and Woods) in both playoff series openers. Adam Beckman got the overtime winner in Game 4 against Portland as part of the other unit that includes Ethan McIndoe and Jake McGrew, plus defensemen Filip Kral and Nolan Reid.

“We mixed it up some during the year, trying different guys on different units to find the right combinations,” Ty Smith said. “We’ve found two that work right now and Dan’s doing a great job of getting across what he wants us to do.”

It’s just another byproduct of what may be the team’s best attribute: depth. Lambert continues to roll four lines in the playoffs and with good reason – Jack Finley and McIndoe from his last grouping are among the Chiefs’ top six playoff scorers. Opponents are having to account for what on many teams is merely a checking line.

“It helped us against Portland with them having Cody Glass (the Winterhawks’ No. 2 scorer) out,” Lambert said. “And Everett’s had a few injuries as well. I think our depth so far has been able to make a difference.”

The Silvertips have their own difference-maker – a defense that surrendered just 130 goals in 68 games, a WHL best. Just one reason the Chiefs take no particular comfort with a 2-0 lead and home ice.

“They don’t give up too many chances,” Woods said, “so when you get one, you’d better put it in the net.”

Whether the power’s on or not.

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